As employee burnout cases spike around the world, companies — and governments — are questioning the 5-day workweek. That seemingly cemented schedule, which was first legalized in the 1930s thanks to American labor activists, exhausted by 14-hour workdays, was an attempt to take back time. Is it time to try a 4-day workweek?
Spain, Scotland, and India are just a sampling of the countries now experimenting with modified work weeks. In California, Congressman Mark Takano’s recent introduction of legislation that would trim the standard American workweek (from 40 to 32 hours) is sparking both enthusiasm and skepticism. “Whether [Takano] will get it through the line is kind of irrelevant to the fact that the topic is a really large part of the conversation now,” says Charlotte Lockhart, CEO of 4 Day Week Global, an international campaign that promotes a productivity-focused, reduced-hour workplace.
Here, we offer some perks and potential downsides to reconfiguring the Monday-to-Friday grind.
1. It catalyzes creativity.
“Stand up if you’ve had a great idea while you were sitting at your desk,” Lockhart says, reiterating a question she often poses at speaking engagements. “Then stand up if you have had great ideas in the shower, walking the dog, gardening, in a yoga class, or anywhere else,” she continues.
Great ideas can come to mind at any time, and working long hours can crush ingenuity. “As business leaders, I know that even when you’re away from work, work isn’t far from your brain,” she adds. “Because we know that the subconscious is where those ideas, whether it’s a solution to a problem or a great design feature for something new, come from.”
2. It’s a performance booster.
Art Shectman, CEO of the New York City-based software and data engineering company, Elephant Ventures, first saw his team in the Philippines adopt a compressed schedule about six years ago. “They were really out-punching their weight class, and productivity increased by an estimated 20 to 30 percent,” he recalls, describing one of the many reasons he piloted a consolidated 4-day workweek (all employees still work 40-hour weeks) here in America last year. “We saw similar boosts when the U.S. shifted [to a 4-day workweek],” he says. “Protracted rest is a good thing.”
3. It blocks distractions.
When employees score an extra day to tackle non-work commitments, they aren’t squeezing their household and life responsibilities into workdays. “From a morale standpoint, folks are stoked to have an extra day for maintenance-of-life stuff,” says Shectman. “If you’re on a 5-day cadence and have kids or elderly parents to care for, there’s no time to deal with the rest of your commercial life.”
1. It can be a schedule scramble.
If employees aren’t coordinating their days off, project management becomes challenging. “There’s now more discipline in documenting things, in preparing for meetings, and scheduling them properly,” admits Shectman. “There are some struggles with finding time for overlap with other time zones, especially if the overlap is first thing in the morning,” he adds, mentioning that Elephant Ventures aims to keep the earlier hours of a workday meeting-free. “So that your most productive brain cycles are applied to your day as you start the job in an uninterrupted way,” he explains.
2. You can’t set-and-forget it.
“You can’t use the [compressed workweek] to improve your employee culture when you’ve got a bad culture to begin with — you have to fix the top first,” Lockhart stresses, emphasizing that pivoting to a 4-day workweek should always be prefaced by open, honest, and inclusive conversations on measuring and improving productivity. “Because with the time you save, you’re going to send employees home,” she adds. “We need to remember that we borrow our people from their lives.”